Sunday, December 13, 2015

Yet Another Hero

We have been nestled back into our Salt Spring Island home for a few weeks now, but still fresh are the memories of our work in Vietnam and the wonderful people we meet.

I have been writing about some of these dedicated souls and a HERO series posts seems to be building.

Today's story is about Nha Su Thich Nu Minh Tu.

Almost 30 years ago, Co Minh Tu, having experienced the devastation of Hue during the war, committed herself to providing a loving environment for orphaned and abandoned children.

Today the Duc Son Pagoda Orphanage (  houses almost 200 children.

When we have visited the orphanage with Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans or on our own, we find the children all scrubbed, polite and welcoming. The atmosphere is very calm, but warm and loving.

From their website:

Individual nuns take responsibility for different aspects of the orphanages'   activities, such as gardening, physical education, cooking, entertainment, health and so on. They are working or on call 24/7 and take turns, along with the volunteers,  supervising the children at night.

The orphanage has a remarkable air of serenity due mainly to the calm, caring atmosphere created by the nuns.

The children are encouraged to join the nuns in prayer on special occasions. But, unlike many pagoda-run orphanages, there is no pressure on children to follow the monastic life. The main aim is to provide the children with the physical well being and emotional strength and confidence to make their own way in life.

The family atmosphere is evident; the older children look after the younger ones and each child has chores which are age appropriate like washing dishes or laundry or working in the garden.

Laundry and dishes become a game with lots of water sloshing about!! Gardening provides exercise out of doors in the fresh air and teaches a respect for the food which they grow.

When we visit the Duc Son Pagoda Orphanage with TOP Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans it is an exciting day for us and for the kids. We donate a healthy dinner for the kids and months worth of essential supplies and have a wonderful time playing, singing, and visiting with the children.

All the while, Co Minh Tu keeps a watchful eye over her flock and her able staff of nuns and volunteers.

Over the years children have grown and graduated from high school and some from university. becoming independent adults. All, I am sure have loving hearts as exemplified by Nha Su Thich Nu Minh Tu...their hero and mine.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Another Hero

Remember the old exercise in self development and team building workshops, and in the "getting to know you " part of any retreat?  "Who is your hero?" "Name your three heroes."  You would rummage around in your head and heart, wandering what magnificent human being you wanted the group to associate with you. You would wonder if Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Mother Teresa or Stormin' Norman Schwartzkopf were good picks or maybe because of a conversation you had the night before "my Dad" was the right answer for the day.

While doing Journeys of Heart work in Vietnam, we meet heroes every day and I would like to introduce you to one.

This is Thanhhuynh Huynh. (pronounced Tan....a little closer to Ton as in "of coal"....then One One ..with a good out breath on the One).

Thanh works tirelessly for a Vietnamese based charity Ong Van as a volunteer. His "real" job is as a tour guide.  The translation to English of the charity name is Yellow Bee, but the corps of young Vietnamese who, under Thanh's leadership, perform miracles every week wear distinctive t-shirts with the logo Same Same But Different.  

When we met at Binh and Quyen's house to talk about the work of Ong Van, we were struck by his benevolence. He wanted us to really understand the plight of the villagers living high in the mountains.  Because of the isolation and meagre once-annual crops these Montagnards live in extreme poverty. 

The children are hungry and ignorant of the outside world.

Thanh's personal commitment and drive and enthusiastic leadership are beginning to change that....but to do so is difficult. There is the terrain to deal with in getting groups of volunteers, supplies and building materials up the mountain.

There is often a language problem once there as the hill tribes speak their own language or dialect. And often there is suspicion and opposition from the village elders, who are leery of the outsiders and their different ways. 

Thanh has two primary purposes: First to get food into hungry tummies and to provide clothing for the cool mountain climate.  This usually takes place in the dilapidated school building.

Secondly, the group provides schools and education in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and ignorance.

The trek up the mountain is daunting, even without considering hauling building materials. But several times a year, Thanh and his crew of volunteers do just that and when they get to the village they all pitch in and build a school...rain or shine!

When the school is finished, usually in just a matter of days, blessings are chanted.

When I listen to Thanh's stories and hear about the almost insurmountable obstacles I am in awe.  He is truly dedicated to strengthening his country and its poorest communities.

Journeys of the Heart, with the support of the Retired Teachers organization in Kenora, Ontario and the Saint Alban's Church School of the same town, has been able to be part of building two of these mountain schools. Others have provided funds for the food and clothing for the villagers.

In a recent  Facebook message exchange Thanhhuynh wrote " I do not know how to say but from my heart, i say thank you so much"

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Celebrating a Milestone

We have been volunteering at Reaching Out Vietnam since 2008. But long before we crossed the threshold of this amazing social enterprise Mr. Binh and his wife Quyen established the business with three employees and a grand vision.

Last night, along with their now 70 employees we celebrated the 15th Anniversary of Reaching Out.

The gala was catered, but in concert with the core values of the organization, it was catered by a local charity, Ong Van, (Yellow Bee, or Same Same but Different, depending on who is speaking). This is the group who make the arduous journey up into the mountains to build schools for very poor villages.  It was a huge win-win. Reaching Out got a great party and Ong Van raised funds for yet another school.

Our new friend Thanhhuynh Huynh spearheaded the organization of the event. With a crew of about 30 people, they provided the entire setup, seating, food, music and lights (even fireworks at the right moments!) There were dancers and singers and the crowd of about 100 people loved it!

Even Gao, at 3 years old took up his ukelele to perform with a guitarist. How cute was this!

Everyone was honoured, the long term employees, the sales team, the artisans, the teahouse servers, the volunteers (yes, Bruce and I too) There were gifts and surprises galore.

Binh and Quyen chose the occasion to announce some new benefits including a new Child Care Allowance for all employees with children and an Early Retirement package for employees whose health may prevent them from working until age 60 or 65 years old. We all had a few tears, when Quyen, much to Binh's surprise, included him in the small group. He was touched as we all were by the thoughtfulness and recognition that her husband has toiled for many years in his pursuit to provide better lives for people of disability in Hoi An and beyond. His tireless dedication seems daunting and we are in awe of his accomplishments.

Every employee regardless of length of service received a commemorative plate, a gift certificate and a cactus (symbolic of sustainability)

The gift giving was so well orchestrated. Senior employees had all the gifts organized and recipients names appeared on the screen, along with the names of the presenters. This crew was also on hand to help Bruce and I present the gifts graciously. Photos were fast!

A special guest was Hien, who travelled down from Da Nang. We attended Hien's wedding five years ago. A talented painter, whose work is showcased at Reaching Out, he now has two children.

And then the food! What a spread! And the beer flowed with many Mot Hai Ba's...the traditional toast  ( loosely, two, three drink!)

There were so many photos....these are two of my favourites. The Tea House staff are so very beautiful and gracious and although speech and hearing impaired felt very much a part of all the goings on...every speech and presentation was simultaneously signed....and they too celebrated!

We have learned so much from our Reaching Out family about loving and caring for one another. As the evening wore on and the music lulled into a quiet tune, we just needed to hang on to each other, the amusement of all, we danced on the lawn.

Never did we imagine in 2008 that we would still be working with this wonderful group of people in 2015 and be present for their 15th Anniversary party. 

Donors to Journeys of the Heart through the years have sponsored many of the young people with whom we celebrated last night. They have become skilled artisans, loving people and fully integrated into their communities. Thank you for helping to launch them. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Heroes in Profile

While travelling with Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans there are many moments of bravery.

Veterans who have survived a war and perhaps years of rehabilitation and healing confront the memories which they have carried for many years.

Each veteran's story is one of courage, either on the battle field or in revisiting the sites where their youthful innocence was lost.

Jess is the Founder and CEO of TOP. He has provided the opportunity for countless veterans to return to Vietnam over the last twenty years. Each trip is planned so that the veterans under his guidance can  return to the exact site (or close to it) where vivid memories were etched in their young hearts so many years ago. Quiet and contemplative, Jess honours each veteran today as he has for so many trips.

Doug on the left and Elliot on the right have both returned to Vietnam twice with TOP. Both are  kind and sensitive to the experiences of all the men on the trip and openly share their feelings and reactions.

Bruce on the left has travelled with TOP 8 times and is now the expert at map reading, research and navigating for all significant sites. Steve on the right has travelled with TOP 4 years in succession, and is now the "glue" for all of the humanitarian project goods.

This is Chuck, another TOP returnee. As you can see he embodies the goodwill and spirit of our humanitarian projects and is the first man in on the fun at orphanages and care homes. He also is an armchair scholar of the Vietnam war and shares valuable data to help us all understand many of the tactical events of the war.

This is Anh. He is a veteran from the Vietnamese side of the conflict. A survivor, as a child of a New Economic zone and labour as a rice farmer, he has grown from an uneducated rural child to become a university graduate, excellent translator and a "miracle" worker in keeping us on track and on time through some precarious travel. Without Anh's resourcefulness, we would not get through all of the regulatory red tape and find the individuals and communities who benefit from our donations.

Heroes all!

Hen gap lai! (See you again!)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hearts across the Ocean

It is one of our greatest joys while here in Hoi An to witness the impact of sponsorships through Children's Education Foundation.  As many of you know from reading our blogs and from our stories, the mission of this organization is to keep girls from poor families in school so that "they grow to be women with choices."

Our association with CEF has been two fold. We encourage our donors to Journeys of the Heart to direct their funds to this NGO and we work with Linda and her staff on development and organizational issues.

Over the years we have visited many of the girls whose education has been supported by our friends and family and we are so pleased when we see the progress and maturation of these eager girls and young women who treasure their opportunities to stay in school. They see their futures as full of promise, away from early marriage, the back breaking work of growing rice or servitude of other kinds. They do not comprehend their vulnerability to trafficking, but we do.

So when it is possible we leap at the chance to visit the girls in their homes.

This year, as last, we visited Van and her family who live in the fishing village of Cua Dai near the mouth of the Thu Bon river. Meeting Linda and two of her staff at a hotel, we hopped on motorbikes to get to Van's house. What fun it is to mount up and ride in the breeze behind capable drivers like Thuy and Ngoc.

The lanes in the village were a challenge but eventually we arrived at Van's house. They were expecting us and the tea was ready! We were warmly greeted by Van, her Mom and her sweet Grandma.

What makes this visit special is that Van's sponsor who lives in California always makes a special effort to send to us, well in advance of our departure from Salt Spring Island, a gift for Van, pictures of her family and a letter.

Van could read her sponsor's letter in English which delighted us all.

To add poignancy,  Van's sponsor sent a shell from the beaches of Hawaii. The symbolism of the shell was that it had come from a Pacific shore thousands of miles away. We were all connected over the expanse of this great water. Van and CEF staffers, Ngoc and Thuy were mesmerized to hear the ocean sounds in the shell.

Van's sponsor's parents landed in Hawaii after fleeing Vietnam after the war. Here we were, presenting  a shell from Hawaii to Van, who shares a heritage with her sponsor. I was close to tears.

And, as you can see, I was also suffering the heat!! The wet look hairdo is the style that I sport often here in this humid and hot place.

Thank you to Van's sponsor and all of our friends who have committed to keeping a young Vietnamese girl in school.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Delivering Donations

Yesterday we went off to the Red Cross Centre here in Hoi An to visit our old friends. Miss Hoa is the Director of VAVA (Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange and her partner is Mr. Thinh). Over the years these two former Viet Cong soldiers have been welcoming and gracious. They have treated us to dinners, lunches and cruises down the Thu Bon River at night with the lanterns floating all around.

 We are now so relaxed with them that Miss Hoa, in talking with our interpreter, pointed a finger at Bruce saying "bang bang" indicating that as a Viet Cong soldier they were on different sides on the war.....then we all hugged.

Our purpose was to deliver the generous donations from Bruce's buddies, veterans who served in the 4th Battalion, 23d Infantry, so many years ago and many of whom also suffer the effects of Agent Orange. These US Army veterans are generally compensated for any illness related to their Agent Orange exposure, but in Vietnam the support, if any, from the government is woefully inadequate.   Nor of course has the US government or the chemical companies responsible for the manufacture of this dioxin stepped forward in any meaningful way to ease the suffering of these victims. There is however now an American funded project to neutralize the areas near Da Nang where Agent orange was stored.

Bruce was ably assisted in his communication by our friend Ni, (right front). Ni works at Reaching Out but volunteered to give us a hand during the meeting. The young woman Thuy (right top) is new to her job and her spoken English is sparse. She is replacing the lovely Phuong who has recently married and no longer works with VAVA. It was primarily Phuong, whose English we relied upon, who stick-handled our negotiations to work with VAVA to set up the idea of a micro-loan program...a "hand up" instead of a "hand out." With Ni's help yesterday, we were able to get agreement that the program will continue with this years' recipients of loans being, among others, a family for whom a cow will make a difference in their lives ensuring fresh milk and the possibility for breeding cattle. Another family will be supported in getting started in the fishing business.

After the formal counting and handing over of the cash and the writing of receipts (this agency does VERY meticulous paper work), Ni also helped us to deepen our relationships with Miss Hoa and Mr. Thinh, enquiring about one another's health and telling stories of our visits through the years. It helps that all of our old pictures are still under glass on the desk and on the walls of the office. Proudly displayed is a picture of one of our donors sporting the scarf made for her by a recipient who started a home based knitting business.

Never wanting to miss out Mr. Nguyet, an 84 years old resident of the Red Cross Centre just marched into the office and took a seat.

Nguyet and his wife are old friends too and right on the spot Miss Hoa shared a few dollars from the donations with him. My reward was a big kiss and we had a good giggle when I told him that he was too old to be my boyfriend.

Nguyet and his wife live at the centre which is frankly quite dismal, with tiny, sparsely furnished rooms. The air circulation on this sweltering day was negligible and the foul orders from the communal bathroom at the end of the hall hung in the air. As always we were invited to their room. You see most of it in this picture.

What we find incredible is that despite the fact that Nguyet served for 65 years in the military on the side of the North, the victors, yet this meagre place with a small stipend is his only benefit. Because of their Agent Orange exposure they have no children to look after them. I think that even Ni was taken aback by their humble circumstances. She was particularly impressed with this photo, stashed under glass on the one small table. Nguyet's medals are impressive on the uniform which hangs still under plastic on one of the walls (you can see it just behind Bruce's ear in the photo above)

There is not an angry, resentful bone is this old, wizened body....still a proud soldier and gracious host.

After tea and cookies we said our good-byes...a very sober trio, Bruce, Ni and I.

Huge thank you hugs to the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry gentleman and their wives who have sent such generous gifts.